Twenty-five years ago, the striking blue waters of Florida’s Peacock Springs were as clear as glass, “like a fantasy,” recalls environmental scientist and cave diver Pete Butt. Snorkeling at the surface, he could see through the water to the limestone bottom and its craggy portals to one of the longest underwater cave systems in the nation.
Divers still converge on Peacock and the other springs that sparkle azure in the forests of northern and central Florida. Yet outbreaks of algae have started to cloud the crystal waters — along with the future of Florida’s collection of more than 1,000 freshwater springs, one of the world’s largest concentrations.
Algae clump on the surface in smelly mats, smother native aquatic vegetation with slime or grow along the bottom in hairy, green strands. “Amorphous goo,” Butt calls it. “Atrocious.”
Scientists have long tied the rise of algae to that of nitrate pollution from fertilizers running off farms and yards, and organic wastes from septic tanks, dairy farms and city wastewater systems. Another suspect: groundwater pumping of the Floridan Aquifer, which provides the majority of drinking water to the state’s booming population and irrigation for most of its crops.